My Brother’s Name is Jessica – Does it Deserve the Criticism?

This past weekend, I finished reading My Brother’s Name is Jessica, the latest release from Irish author John Boyne. I picked it up a few weeks back while browsing in a book shop because the cover caught my eye, it seemed like an interesting and topical story and I remembered seeing that it was controversially trending on Twitter for some reason. But I hadn’t clicked into anything, and didn’t really know what that was all about.

So I bought the book, and decided to forgo looking into the scandal before reading it, so as to make up my own mind about the story before seeing why it riled people. Upon finishing it, I have to be honest and say that I’m not completely sure how I feel about it.

For anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book yet or heard anything about it, My Brother’s Name is Jessica is told from the point of view of Sam, a 13-year-old boy who idolises his big brother Jason. When Jason reveals that she is actually Jessica, knowing she has been born into the wrong body since childhood, it sends shockwaves through the Waver family.

Mr and Mrs. Waver – high profile government officials – immediately dismiss Jessica, believing it to be a phase she will grow out of, and are desperate to keep it from going any further in case the press get wind of the story, and potentially damage Mrs. Waver’s upcoming bid for the job of UK Prime Minister. On the other hand, Sam is bullied daily by his classmates about the whole situation while dealing with his own confusion about what Jessica is going through, which makes him somewhat resentful of the person he once idolised.

A large part of the criticism that has landed at Boyne’s door has to do with many in the transgender community feeling the narrative stereotypes transgender people, and some have even gone as far as to say that it contains transphobic material from somebody who doesn’t have a full perspective of what living life as trans is really like. For his part, Boyne has hit back at critics of his work, feeling that he has been targeted for daring to write about an unlived experience. In the linked article he is quoted as saying: “I’ve always said the worst advice you can give to young writers is write about what you know. Write about what you don’t know. If we only write about what we know, it’s all biography.” It’s a sentiment echoed in the afterword of My Brother’s Name is Jessica.

On that score, I can agree with him. Authors shouldn’t shy away from a subject just because they haven’t lived it…if they did, many over the years wouldn’t have been able to write what they did, and we would have lost out on some great stories. I take the same view here as I did to the news that Taron Egerton’s casting as Elton John in Rocketman had received backlash from the LGBT community because Egerton is straight.

While I can understand the frustration of a community that is often underrepresented in film, casting of a role should be made on who is best for the part, and should have nothing to do with sexuality (and I do acknowledge that that has happened to the detriment of gay actors in the past, but I also do think times are thankfully changing regarding this). Even if you ignore the fact that John, who we obviously know is an openly gay man, personally requested that Egerton play him in the biopic, the Welsh actor heavily researched the character, and it’s clear from his performance that he relished playing every part of Elton’s life and was always the right choice.

My point being that, if you are going to write a story about something that you are unfamiliar with on a personal level, by all means write the story. But make sure that you research the hell out of it in order to get as wide a perspective as possible, and make sure you are prepared to take the inevitable criticism that will come, because not everybody is going to like or agree with your finished product.

Boyne speaks in the afterword of his book about meeting with several members of the transgender community for research purposes before writing it. I think we have no reason to doubt him on this. But I do wonder if his plan to structure his transgender story from the point of view of a child on the outside looking in was a wise one that people in the transgender community would really get behind?

While I did find My Brother’s Name is Jessica well written in parts, I personally thought writing it from Sam’s point of view was not the best approach he could have took. I say that as somebody who is not transgender and while I have empathy for those who are, I admittedly do not have a whole lot of knowledge or insight in this area, so that is just an opinion having read this book.

I do know what Boyne was going for in trying to capture the confusion the friends and family members of a transgender person often feel when that person reveals they are transgender. But, why not use the opportunity to tell the story from the point of view of Jessica instead, and use those research meetings with transgender people to really show how people living this life cope and feel while living it? For me, reading it the way it was written kind of places Jason/Jessica as the antagonist of the story, who is the result of their parents ridicule in the press and their younger brother’s bullying. When in actual fact, Jessica is simply trying to be who she is, and any adverse effects of that shouldn’t be lumped on her shoulders.

That’s not to say I think that this book should have been all sunshine and rainbows, where nobody opposes Jessica in her transgender journey, because then it wouldn’t be realistic. Sadly, we don’t yet live in a world where that’s the case. But, I do think the book could have been structured better and written from Jessica’s point of view, rather than have it feel like she is the villain of the piece, destroying everybody else’s way of life.

The controversy surrounding this book doesn’t seem to be dying down, but I think it is spurring some important conversations, in spite of the inevitable mudslinging that often  happens in the social media age. As a reader, I’m admittedly conflicted by this book, because I can see what the intention in writing it was, but can also see why there is criticism.

Overall, I think we should steer clear of telling people to “stay in their lane” when it comes to writing because it ultimately will hamper creativity. But I also think if we are to venture into personally uncharted territory in our writing, we should be prepared to do the utmost by way of research in order to handle the topic as sensitively as possible. And be prepared to face the criticism of those who think you haven’t achieved that!

 

15 thoughts on “My Brother’s Name is Jessica – Does it Deserve the Criticism?

  1. I’ve just finished this book myself and it’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that I won’t be reviewing. There’s so much controversy around it that I’m bound to offend someone without meaning to.

    Did I like the book? I don’t know…I didn’t dislike it, but it is problematic. I found the character of Sam to be very infantalised in places – he’s 13 but at times he is written much younger – the constant talk of ‘willies’ and his constant references to ‘my brother Jason’ just felt too young for a 13 year old. The book is very modern in its setting, and teenagers these days are far more mature than Sam was written.
    I also didn’t like the parents. I didn’t really understand why they had to be so prominent in the public eye – so many ‘normal’ families go through the issues in the book, and I feel that straight away they are alienated because the family in this book are so far from ‘normal’.
    I agree that i think it would have been better if it was written from Jessica’s perspective – the decision to tell her family, how she transitioned, the process involved in that etc as opposed to Sam’s perspective which I felt really downplayed what must be a huge struggle for transgender people.
    It’s a problematic book…but I think it has started a discussion about transgender people and what they go through and if that can breed understanding and cause people to open their minds, then maybe it’s a good thing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was in two minds about reviewing this too because of how fraught things are around it right now. But I decided to take the risk.

      I agree with all your points because I felt more or less the exact same way. I don’t think I disliked the book, but it was definitely problematic in terms of some content and structure!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was also trying to keep the fact that it is written for children in my head while reading it, so it obviously wouldn’t have the level of depth I’m used to from Boyne’s work, but compared to the likes of The Boy In The Stripes Pyjamas, it doesn’t stand up. It almost feels like it was written purely to be relevant, if that makes sense?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good to see a fair and balanced review. One point of disagreement, however: I do not agree with telling Boyne whose perspective he should tell the story from. I think any criticism should be based around the story, and how well it is told/written.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair point. And I see where you are coming from.

      Just from my point of view reading it, basing it from the point of view it was based from hampered it. Because it immediately felt like Jessica was an antagonist.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t tread the book so obviously I can’t comment on the specifics, Stephen. But why did Jessica feel like the antagonist to you? I would imagine for Jessica’s sibling, there will always be the normal antagonism/rivalry/ambivalence/love feelings to contend with, with the added spice of the negative fallout for being the brother of a transgender person. As in guilty by association, in the eyes of those attacking Jessica. As a kid, I am sure part of you would feel aggrieved by the association with a sibling who draws negative reactions and abuse. So there’s guilt around that resentment, and so on and so on. Boy, I seem to have a lot of opinions on something I haven’t even read … I will stop now!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Because at the start of the book, Sam adores Jason. Then when he reveals that he is actually Jessica, we only experience Sam’s reaction, and he is confused for sure, but then angry at her for changing everything. It leaves you feeling like Sam has been hard done by and Jessica is ruining his life, when in fact she is only trying to live her own as best she can. Things straighten out in the end and everyone is happy (slight spoiler, sorry for that) but for the majority of the book there is a sense of the other characters feeling hard done by Jessica and wanting to force her to change.

        I mean, when you read it, you may have a completely different view to me, which is grand like. This is just how it came across to me. I’d be interested in hearing what you think after reading.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think this is key: “But make sure that you research the hell out of it in order to get as wide a perspective as possible, and make sure you are prepared to take the inevitable criticism that will come, because not everybody is going to like or agree with your finished product.”

    However, considering the on-going oppression of the transgender community, I’d hope that the author would also have had editorial readers who are members of the community. People of a targeted group don’t have to always be portrayed in glowing terms, IMO that’s a form of soft bigotry in itself. But care must be taken to avoid furthering the stereotypes and confirmation bias of others.

    Thanks for the review. I found it thoughtful.

    Liked by 1 person

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